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5 Principles of Peak Performance

2012 August 1
by Greg Satell

Cinderella was an amazing performer.  In one night she made it to the ball, found her prince and lived happily ever after.

Amazingly, she did so by her natural grace, charm and wit.  Having no experience with princes or balls, she became the star of the show, with no prior coaching, preparation or experience.  She simply believed it could be true and it was.

Alas, Cinderella, much like many stories of great accomplishment, is a fairy tale.  We love hearing about the moment of triumph; the shot at the buzzer, the photo finish and the medals at the podium.  The truth is boring – endless hours, repeated frustration and constant exhaustion.  Here are 5 principles that determine whether it’s all worth it.

1. Talent is Overrated

In his sophomore year, Michael Jordan couldn’t make his his high school varsity basketball team.  Albert Einstein failed his first college entrance exam.  Immanuel Kant didn’t publish anything significant until he was fifty years old.  Outstanding achievers often show very little early promise.

Interestingly, the opposite is also true.  There is a body of research that suggests that early giftedness is a minor factor in later achievement.  One study that tracked Presidential Scholars found that few of those who were identified as exceptional in their teens went on to fame and fortune as adults (although they were more successful than average).

That doesn’t mean that talent doesn’t help, it does.  Besides the ability itself, those who show promise are given more encouragement than others, which leads to a multiplier effect.  They get more attention and more opportunities to hone their skills.  So ability is worth having.  After all, Michael Jordan wouldn’t have made the NBA if he were 5’ 6.”

Still the evidence suggests that once a threshold is passed, more ability doesn’t help very much.  Richard Feynman, considered one of the great geniuses of the 20th century, had an IQ of 125, above average but by no means unusual or even exceptional.

2. Deliberate Practice

So if talent doesn’t lead to greatness, what does?  The answer is practice.  As Anders Ericsson, a noted authority on expertise and performance, showed in his highly cited paper on deliberate practice, it takes about 10,000 hours of training to become world class in any field.  Yet it isn’t just the time you put in, it’s how you spend it.

He illustrates the point with a golf example.  When you start out, it is hard to hit the ball straight enough to finish a game.  With some practice (he estimates 50 hours), an average person will be able to hit the ball effectively and can enjoy playing.  However, after that most people don’t develop much further.

The reason is that they stop trying to improve, working on their weak areas and doing things that aren’t fun.  If you want to be the best, you always need to be getting better.

3. Focus on Fundamentals

When I first got to college, I got a rude awakening into the world of Division I athletics.  It wasn’t that everybody was really, really good, I expected that, it’s what they spent their time on.

Our freshman class was full of high achievers.  All of us had been stars in high school, won big tournaments, made all star teams and so on.  So it surprised us, to say the least, that our coach started us out on fundamentals, the stuff we hadn’t really practiced since we were kids.  We were all really, really bad at basic skills.

We had all thought that the basic stuff was for beginners and we had gone far past that. In reality, we soon found that the higher you go up in competition, the more time you spend drilling.  Later, when I began to work out with Team Foxcatcher (a training center for Olympic hopefuls), I found that even world champions continually practice fundamental skills.

Look around and you’ll find that in any field, the very best get that way not by learning advanced skills (that comes with time), but by continuing to hone primary ones long after others have forgotten them.

4. Train to Beat the Best

Among the most common misperceptions is that top performers “do what it takes to win.” That’s important, but not nearly enough.  You have to train to beat the best.

One of the red flags I’ve noticed in poor performers is that they have a tendency to talk down the competition.  They assume that their opponents will not work hard or think creatively or devote enough resources.  They always assume that there will be some mistake they can capitalize on.

True excellence comes from beating the best at their best, not getting lucky on somebody else’s bad day.  To do that, you have to constantly seek out the best competition, partners and teammates.  Surround yourself with mediocrity and you might find it easier to feel good about yourself, but you’ll never achieve any true level of excellence.

5. It Takes a Lot of Love

By now it should be clear that very little of this is very pleasurable.  In fact, most of it really sucks.  Honing your weaknesses, practicing fundamentals till they become second nature and finding the discipline to do away with all of the petty distractions that entertain your ego, these things don’t come easy.  They are contrary to human nature.

To be good at anything (truly good, not just good enough for local bragging rights) you need to be pushed and learn to push yourself.  It’s frustrating, exhausting and you go through long periods where it really doesn’t seem worth the effort.

You shoot for the Zeno’s paradox of perfection, always closing half the distance, but never really arriving at your destination.

So that brings us to the true secret of success.  To succeed in any field of endeavor, you have to love it.  Not merely want to be recognized or to get rich or to make your mother happy, but to do something for its own sake, because getting it right, or even coming close, is something that stirs the very depths of your soul.

It’s not always fun, but it is eminently rewarding.

– Greg

Note: Special thanks to Jorge Barba for helping to inspire this post.  You can check out his blog at

4 Responses leave one →
  1. Arjun Mohan permalink
    August 2, 2012

    Great read Greg !

    Especially below quote hit me hard:

    “Surround yourself with mediocrity and you might find it easier to feel good about yourself, but you’ll never achieve any true level of excellence.”

    Very refreshing. Thanks for sharing !


    Arjun Mohan

  2. August 2, 2012

    Thx Arjun. I’m glad you liked it.

    – Greg

  3. August 27, 2012

    This post really hits home. I swam in HS and was good in my own little corner of the swimming world. However, once I hit that higher level and started making finals in sectionals I crumbled.

    While I trained hard, I was lacking in mental toughness. Training was the easy part, but learning to compete with the best at MY best was the main issue.

    After going from a #1 seed to finishing #4 or 5 was heartbreaking and ruined my confidence and training habits. Upon getting to college I was unprepared and downright lazy. I just hope I can keep training my athletes to give 100%

  4. August 27, 2012

    Good luck Greg!

    – Greg

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